For our “agile in the newsroom” project we wanted to interview NPR’s social media strategist, Melody Kramer because she operates so well at the place where tech, newsroom and audience collide. On Twitter she is @mkramer. There she embodies what is meant by a “conversational style.” She used to run social media for the NPR show Fresh Air. She’s written pieces, too, and she knows code.
We’re big fans of the Tumblr she does with her colleague Wright Bryan. It’s called Social Media Desk. A big part of it is the “social media sandbox” posts, which began as an email list for NPR bosses and staffers. The point was to share what the social media team was learning as it experimented with different techniques. That’s what she did in this interview with Studio 20’s director, Jay Rosen.
Q. I know you’re a digital strategist at NPR and part of the social media team, but that’s an official description. What would you say your actual job is? If we assume that every organization has both a formal structure and an informal culture, how would you describe your “position” in that informal system at NPR?
A. I describe myself as sitting at the intersection of product, editorial, and the audience. I lead projects from conception through technical completion that either make our newsroom more agile in the digital space, or able to better connect with our audience. Examples: the analytics dashboard, the Quotable tool, and socializing the bylines on our website.
I don’t actually run the NPR accounts. The homepage team handles Facebook and Twitter. We handed them over in the summer. We — me and Wright Bryan — work on strategy, and with individual journalists and departments to use social as a way to further their journalism. Meaning: acquiring sources, finding story ideas, and so on.
Q: You said “make our newsroom more agile in the digital space.” What do you mean by a more agile newsroom?
A. The products I’ve helped develop have given our newsroom better information about our audience. For example, the analytics dashboard helps our journalists know how their stories are spreading and who is sharing it. And then we run the Sandbox, which was initially designed to create a sharing culture at NPR, in conjunction with the analytics dashboard. If you notice something on the dashboard, how do you share it with the rest of the newsroom? That was our initial question.
So the listserv, which is opt-in at NPR and has about 600 subscribers, shares stuff we find interesting or — and this is the key — that people in the building find interesting. Wright and I are two people. We work with hundreds of journalists. Many eyeballs are better than four. By more agile, I mean they have information that they can then act upon and potentially change or alter behaviors.
Q. Able to notice stuff, share it, and learn?
A. Yes. Iterative.
Q. I am fascinated by the success you have had with the Social Media Sandbox. It reminds me somewhat of the history of Craigslist. First a mailing list of things Craig found interesting, then people began using the list to share stuff, and then it became a web site anyone could access, with lots of contributors. So I want to go back to the very beginning, wen it was an internal mailing list. How did you start? What was in it? I know you had all the bosses on the list and everyone else was opt in. But what did you put in there to get them to read it?
A. I think people at NPR are used to me finding stuff online and sharing it with them. I’ve worked there for almost eight years on and off. I know everyone. I always send story ideas I find along to reporters, or interesting bits. This was just more focused.
Q. This was formalizing something you were doing anyway?
A. Yeah. Easier to send one email to lots [of people] than many emails. I really wanted the bosses to know that social was important. And people in our office were consistently doing good work in that area. So we started by praising people for doing good work. People like to have their work praised. And so they began to email us when they had done something good, or noticed something good.
Q. So people wanted to see if they were being mentioned in front of their bosses, as it were, and this helped build membership in the list?
A. Yes. Word quickly spread. We also praised people across the spectrum: a reporter trying out Twitter for the first time was equally praised as someone who had done something much more advanced. Everyone starts from a different place. And the tone is not market-y or talking down to people.
Q. Once you got people reading it what was the next step?
A. Well, I was writing one a day — from last November through this March — when I thought “I want [local] stations to see this stuff too.” Everything is applicable to stations. And the easiest way to get it out widely is through a Tumblr, because it doesn’t require any internal development resources. Kate Myers had started a Tumblr for the social team when she was still on it. So I just transferred over the months of internal newsletters to the Tumblr and started copying every internal Sandbox note there. I think the turning point was this post…
Q. I remember David Folkenflik doing that!
A. …Which resulted in this. A lot of people asked why we made that public. We thought it was a really great learning moment. After we got the feedback, we held a brown bag discussion about breaking news and Twitter, and about 50 people came. It was really helpful to have that conversation. I didn’t know we needed to have that conversation until the Sandbox feedback came in.
Q. Was going public with the email list a case of “better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission?” Or did you get approval?
A. There was nothing in the email list that I wouldn’t feel comfortable making public. I didn’t [ask permission], but it was links and things I was already sharing on Twitter. And basically, we’re promoting NPR every day, in a different way. It also helps situate us as a thought leader in this area. We’ve had interns say they wanted to work at NPR specifically because they read the Sandbox.
Q. What is causing that reaction?
A. We’re thinking about social in a really forward-thinking way. I know a lot of times, I hear from people who work at other news organizations that they’re going to steal ideas from the Sandbox. But I don’t think of it as stealing. We’re happy to share what we’ve learned or what we’re thinking about.
Q. It’s not stealing. It’s “you’re our distribution system!”
A. I work in public media. My work should be public. And it helps fulfill NPR’s mission even though it’s not on air. I hear a lot from people outside of media who are learning stuff: people at universities and museums and libraries. They’re associating NPR with this stuff.
Q. I have the same philosophy. I work at a university. We are about producing new knowledge and teaching it. What do you think is motivating the people at NPR and local stations who contribute to the social media desk Tumblr? Besides recognition for their work, I mean.
A. We have 30,000 daily readers. The Kardashian post got over 800,000 last I checked. That’s part of the motivation, but not all of it. I think people are new to this area, so we’re all learning together. And people feel more comfortable trying things — and saying that they’ve tried — when their peers do too.
I used to work at Fresh Air. We had this guy on whose name was Charles Duhigg, and he talked about habit formation, how there are three steps. I’m just going to quote from the article, because I wrote it.
First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. “Then there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself,” Duhigg tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “That’s what we think about when we think about habits.” The third step, he says, is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future. The reward is getting feedback from coworkers and bosses, having other people know about your work, learning about your coworkers, and passing the knowledge onto the public.
I’m happiest when I see one of my coworkers interviewed for a piece because of something written about them in the Sandbox— and we’re not mentioned at all. Going back to your question, people who work at NPR deeply believe in the mission and our mission is to educate and inform the public. This is one of my favorite posts, because Bob [Mondello, NPR’s movie reviewer] took a bit to get into Twitter. And then he got so into it that he wanted to share. It also lets our interns shine a bit. We want them to get jobs. We have them write posts. People learn about them through this work. (Former intern Alex wrote that post.)
Q. That point about habit is vital. One of the things I have learned as a student of journalism is that if you want to understand a news organization you have to look at its routines. A newsroom is made of routines, essentially. Plus people habituated to them.
A. Yup. It’s really hard to break habits. And determine what isn’t working.
Q. One way to create a more agile newsroom, it seems, is to “interrupt” at the feedback point, where journalists get information about what the users did with their work: how it spread, reactions to it. Because that is a very powerful motivator: to do great journalism, yes, but also to know how it was received, and spread. Are we on the right track here?
A. I think so. But it’s also figuring what information the newsroom needs. Because that’s different from what the executives need. I like giving everyone information. But a.) it can become overwhelming and b.) you have to figure out what’s meaningful. I was talking to a reporter yesterday who did a piece about a company — the first piece about the company — that eventually led to the company being acquired by a major tech firm. That’s not something we put in our analytics dashboard, but I think it’s important for us to know that.
Q. That’s impact, but it’s not data. What’s the kernel of that difference between feedback the newsroom needs vs. what the executives need?
A. I think it has to do with scale. Does an executive need to know how a piece is doing hour to hour, or who is talking about it on Twitter? No. But that information for a reporter can lead to different sources or ideas with how to reach an audience. Executives need a wider picture.
Are you asking whether we should stop giving feedback?
Q. No, I am saying that to interest front line workers in making a more agile newsroom, a good way to engage them is to offer better information about how their work is being received and spread and used.
A. Oh yes. Agree completely. But I also think the front line workers, at least at NPR, are being asked to do a ton of stuff: gather sources, gather sound, cut an audio piece, make a web piece, do social, have a life… So if you give them data, it has to be the right data and it has to make their lives easier. Same with the Sandbox: it’s short, it generally offers one concrete tip, and it immediately improves performance.
Q. A big part of what we are grappling with in this project involves a response I am sure you have heard: “we don’t have the time.” We would like to do this more agile thing but we don’t have time to do what we are supposed to do now. Of course there are a lot of answers to that, including “you’re right!” How have you dealt with that response?
A. Well, I never spring changes on people. They’re part of the process the entire time. We interview, we design with, not for. And if we ask them to do something new, we take something else away. Good strategy for any business. For example, the analytics dashboard makes it really easy to see who is sharing a piece on Facebook or Twitter. So if you were spending a lot of time on those, this expedites the process.
Q. I like that way of putting it: if we ask them to do something new, we take something else away.
A. Right, and really figure out what to take away. I’ll give you another example. We really wanted people to add tracking codes to their pieces, so we could see how the pieces floated around the Internet. The system we had was not great. It involved copying and pasting, and remembering to do that. So I coded up a bookmarklet for everyone. That saves a ton of time, and makes our data much more robust.
If I ran a newsroom, I’d hire someone who would code everything that currently makes everyone’s jobs suck. Meaning: what can be automated so I can focus on my creative process? Sometimes that’s as easy as creating mail rules for someone. Sometimes it’s coding something, like a bookmarklet. They hit a button instead of copying/pasting. Now we’re not asking them to do things that can be automated. It saves money.
Q. From your ISOJ talk: “We’ve been using agile development…but analytics also requires agile thinking.” We’ve talked a little about what you mean by agile thinking: more iterative. But I am wondering if you could flesh it out a little more?
A. Well, it’s similar to what a scientist does. Hypothesize, set up and run an experiment, measure results, iterate or change if need be, repeat. If you’re not changing if need be, there’s no point in measuring.
Q. Right: altering course in response to feedback is in many ways the fulcrum of agile.
A. It’s very difficult, particularly in larger organizations that require signoffs from many depts. Lots of cooks in every pot. When I worked at Fresh Air, I was the entire web team. I wrote every headline, text body, produced the pages, handled social, wrote the billboards for the show. So I didn’t need a quorum to make a change. Terry and Danny trusted me. I very carefully analyzed our numbers and constantly tested things. Our traffic skyrocketed. We received many awards, and our radio listenership went up.
I gave an interview last week where someone said what’s the first word that comes to mind when I say innovation? I said “Buy-in.” You can innovate all you want, but if you don’t have buy-in and you’re not empowered, you’re not going to get anywhere. Same with agile thinking. It requires trust, and the ability to experiment, the ability to fail.
Q. Just an aside on the difference between Fresh Air and NPR. As an organization grows it has to persist even after trusted people come and go. This is why the world invented bureaucracy: not to annoy journalists but to make institutional action consistent over time.
A. That makes sense.
Q. What is newsroom culture? You have had to learn about it by trying to change it a little. So what is it?
A. I’m not sure there’s a distinct culture across an entire newsroom. At my organization, I would say the culture of each desk is different. I’ve had to learn about culture at large organizations, but not necessarily the culture of a newsroom. Newsrooms are no different than a hospital, or any other large employer with lots of different jobs and roles.
Q. That surprises me a little. As an outsider to it, I would think NPR would have a very clear newsroom culture.
A. Well, I think NPR has a culture of people who are curious and really smart and very interested in listening and in telling really great stories. But the culture of the international desk is different than the culture of the arts desk. And the culture of every show I’ve worked on is different. It’s necessary to find out what makes each group tick and not create solutions for everyone.
I’m a really big fan of listening. I’m not a radio producer anymore, but what I take away from the reporters is that they’re really good at listening, and that translates to what I do. If you’re not listening — and sometimes that means asking questions and/or just observing — then it’s difficult to figure out what to do. And I’m a really big fan of the phrase “build with, not for.”
Q. I love that. Final question: what advice do you have for us? Our partner, Storyful, already has a product team that works in two week agile cycles. They want to extend that culture into their newsroom operations and their relationships with newsroom clients who use their stuff. What are some questions we should be asking?
A. Do the product team and editorial teams sit separately? Are there members of the editorial team on each cycle? Are they interviewing each other? Are they in a Slack room together? Do they have hack days where the teams mingle and do really short bursts of work, like what Vox does occasionally? Those are really helpful. We do something similar called Serendipity Days every three months or so.
The Sandbox is read by everyone in product and editorial: both sides contribute. That has helped, in a small way, to explain what each side does. The Sandbox also helps build trust. In a larger organization, there are many moving pieces. Creating something that highlights success helps executives see why and how we’re experimenting.
Photos used with permission under the Creative Commons License from Flickr users Sarinee Achavanuntakul and Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, University of Texas